According to the Historical Dictionary of Law Enforcement, the term "SWAT" was used as an acronym for the "Special Weapons and Tactics" established as a 100-man specialized unit in 1964 by the Philadelphia Police Department in response to an alarming increase in bank robberies. The purpose of this unit was to react quickly and decisively to bank robberies while they were in progress, by utilizing a large number of specially trained officers who had at their disposal a great amount of firepower. The tactic worked and was later soon to resolve other types of incidents involving heavily-armed criminals. Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Inspector Daryl Gates has said that he first envisioned "SWAT" as an acronym for "Special Weapons Attack Team" in 1967, but later accepted "Special Weapons and Tactics" on the advice of his deputy chief, Edward M. Davis.
The LAPD promoted what became known as SWAT teams for a variety of reasons. After the racially charged Watts Riots in Los Angeles in August 1965, the LAPD began considering tactics it could use when faced with urban unrest, rioting, or widespread violence. Daryl Gates, who led the LAPD response to the riots, would later write that police at the time didn't face a single mob, but rather "people attacking from all directions." New York University professor Christian Parenti has written that SWAT teams were originally conceived of as an "urban counterinsurgency bulwark."
Another reason for the creation of SWAT teams was the fear of lone or barricaded gunmen who might outperform police in a shootout, as happened in Austin with Charles Whitman.
After the LAPD's establishment of its own SWAT team, many law enforcement agencies across the United States established their own specialized units under various names. Gates explained in his autobiography Chief: My Life in the LAPD that he neither developed SWAT tactics nor the associated and often distinctive equipment; but that he supported the underlying concept, tried to empower his people to develop it, and generally lent them moral support.
While the public image of SWAT first became known through the LAPD, perhaps because of its proximity to the mass media and the size and professionalism of the Department itself, the first actual SWAT-type operations were conducted north of Los Angeles in the farming community of Delano, California on the border between Kern and Tulare Counties in the San Joaquin Valley. At the time, the United Farm Workers union led by César Chavez was staging numerous protests in Delano, in a strike that would last over five years. Though the strike never turned violent, the Delano Police Department responded by forming ad-hoc SWAT-type units involving crowd and riot control, sniper skills and surveillance. Television news stations and print media carried live and delayed reportage of these events across the United States. Personnel from the LAPD, having seen these broadcasts, contacted Delano and inquired about the program. One officer then obtained permission to observe the Delano Police Department's special weapons and tactics units in action, and afterwards, he took what he had learned back to Los Angeles, where his knowledge was used and expanded on to form the LAPD's own first SWAT unit.
John Nelson was the officer who conceived the idea to form a specially trained and equipped unit in the LAPD, intended to respond to and manage critical situations involving shootings while minimizing police casualties. Inspector Gates approved this idea, and he formed a small select group of volunteer officers. This first SWAT unit initially consisted of fifteen teams of four men each, making a total staff of sixty. These officers were given special status and benefits, and were required to attend special monthly training sessions. The unit also served as a security unit for police facilities during civil unrest. The LAPD SWAT units were organized as "D Platoon" in the Metro division.
Early police powers and tactics used by SWAT teams were aided by legislation passed in 1967-8 with the help of Republican House representative Donald Santarelli. The legislation was promoted within the context of fears over the Civil Rights Movement, race riots, the Black Panthers, and the emerging War on Drugs.
The first significant deployment of the LAPD's SWAT unit was on December 9, 1969, in a four-hour confrontation with members of the Black Panthers in a densely populated area of Los Angeles. The raid was problematic from the start, leading to a shoot-out in which Daryl Gates phoned the Department of Defense, requesting and receiving permission to use a grenade launcher. The Panthers eventually surrendered, with four Panthers and four officers being injured. All six arrested Panthers were acquitted of the most serious charges brought against them, including conspiracy to murder police officers, because it was ruled that they acted in self-defense.
By 1974, there was a general acceptance of SWAT as a resource for the city and county of Los Angeles.
On the afternoon of May 17, 1974, elements of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a group of heavily armed left-wing guerrillas, barricaded themselves in a residence on East 54th Street at Compton Avenue in Los Angeles. Coverage of the siege was broadcast to millions via television and radio and featured in the world press for days afterwards. SWAT teams engaged in a several hour gun battle with the SLA; no police were wounded, but the six SLA members died in the conflict, which ended when the house caught fire and burned to the ground.
By the time of the SLA shoot-out, SWAT teams had reorganized into six 10-man teams, each team being divided further into two five-man units, called elements. An element consisted of an element leader, two assaulters, a scout, and a rear-guard. The normal complement of weapons was a sniper rifle (a .243-caliber bolt-action, based on the ordnance expended by officers at the shootout), two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles, and two shotguns. SWAT officers also carried their service revolvers in shoulder holsters. Standard gear included a first aid kit, gloves, and a gas mask. At a time when officers were usually issued six-shot revolvers and shotguns, it was a significant change to have police armed with semi-automatic rifles. The encounter with the heavily armed Symbionese Liberation Army, however, sparked a trend towards SWAT teams being issued body armor and automatic weapons of various types.
A report issued by the LAPD after the SLA shootout offers one of the few firsthand accounts by the department regarding SWAT history, operations, and organization. On page 100 of the report, the Department cites four trends which prompted the development of SWAT. These included riots such as the Watts Riots, which in the 1960s forced the LAPD and other police departments into tactical situations for which they were ill-prepared; the emergence of snipers as a challenge to civil order; political assassinations; and the threat of urban guerrilla warfare by militant groups. "The unpredictability of the sniper and his anticipation of normal police response increase the chances of death or injury to officers. To commit conventionally trained officers to a confrontation with a guerrilla-trained militant group would likely result in a high number of casualties among the officers and the escape of the guerrillas." To deal with these under conditions of urban violence, the LAPD formed SWAT, notes the report. The report states on page 109, "The purpose of SWAT is to provide protection, support, security, firepower, and rescue to police operations in high personal risk situations where specialized tactics are necessary to minimize casualties."
In 1981 U.S. Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, giving police access to military intelligence, infrastructure, and weaponry in the fight against drugs. Reagan subsequently declared drugs to be a threat to U.S. national security. In 1988 the Reagan administration encouraged Congress to create the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Program. The program modified existing federal aid structures to local police, making it easier to transfer money and equipment to fight the War on Drugs. Police forces also received increased assistance from the DEA. The money resulted in the creation of many narcotics task forces, and SWAT teams became an important part of these forces.
In 1972, paramilitary police units launched a few hundred drug raids annually within the United States. In the early 1980s, SWAT drug raid numbers increased to 3,000 annually, and by 1996, 30,000 raids annually. During the 1990s, according to the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, weapons donations from the Pentagon greatly bolstered the number of SWAT teams and the extent of their operations. The paper reported that the military transferred nearly 100,000 pieces of military equipment to Wisconsin police departments in the 1990s.
Criminal justice professors Peter Kraska and Victor Kappeler, in their study Militarizing American Police: The Rise and Normalization of Paramilitary Units, surveyed police departments nationwide and found that their deployment of paramilitary units had grown tenfold between the early 1980s and late 1990s.
The Columbine High School massacre in Colorado on April 20, 1999 was another seminal event in SWAT tactics and police response. As noted in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, "Instead of being taught to wait for the SWAT team to arrive, street officers are receiving the training and weaponry to take immediate action during incidents that clearly involve suspects' use of deadly force." The article further reported that street officers were increasingly being armed with rifles, and issued heavy body armor and ballistic helmets, items traditionally associated with SWAT units. The idea was to train and equip street officers to make a rapid response to so-called active-shooter situations. In these situations, it was no longer acceptable to simply set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT. As an example, in the policy and procedure manual of the Minneapolis Police Department, it is stated, "MPD personnel shall remain cognizant of the fact that in many active shooter incidents, innocent lives are lost within the first few minutes of the incident. In some situations, this dictates the need to rapidly assess the situation and act quickly in order to save lives."
According to criminal justice professor Cyndi Banks, the War on Terror, like the War on Drugs, became the context of a significant expansion of SWAT policing. Whereas some have attributed this expansion to "mission creep" and the militarization of police, other scholars argue that increased SWAT policing is a response to real or perceived moral panics associated with fear of crime and terrorism. Banks writes that SWAT team employment of military veterans has influenced their tactics and perspective.
Countering the view that post-9/11 SWAT policing represents the militarization of police forces, scholar den Heyer writes that SWAT policing is part of a natural progression towards police professionalization. Den Heyer also argues that while SWAT teams continue to be deployed to executing large numbers of drug warrants, this is a rational use of available police resources. Other defenders of SWAT raids state that police departments have every reason to minimize risks to themselves during raids.
By 2005, the number of yearly SWAT deployments in the United States had increased to 50,000, most often to serve drug-related warrants in private homes. According to a study by the ACLU, just under 80% of SWAT deployments were used to serve arrest warrants.
Officers have cited safety as the main reason for use of SWAT teams, stating that SWAT units would frequently be called if there were a possibility a suspect might be armed. For instance in 2006, only two police officers were killed in the arrest of 2 million drug suspects, a low casualty rate possibly stemming from the military equipment and tactics used in the raids.
On February 7, 2008, a siege and subsequent firefight with a shooter in the Winnetka neighborhood of Los Angeles, led to the first line-of-duty death of a member of the LAPD's SWAT team in its 41 years of existence.
Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko, in his book Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, argues that increased SWAT raids have made no-knock raids, and danger to innocents and suspects, far greater. Balko writes that "Americans have long maintained that a man's home is his castle and that he has the right to defend it from unlawful intruders," concluding that "unfortunately, that right may be disappearing." Another study, Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments by Diane Cecilia Weber from the same institute, raises concern about the increasing use of SWAT teams for ordinary policing tasks.
The relative infrequency of SWAT call-outs means these expensively trained and equipped officers cannot be left to sit around, waiting for an emergency. In many departments the officers are normally deployed to regular duties, but are available for SWAT calls via pagers, mobile phones, or radio transceivers. Even in the larger police agencies, such as the LAPD or the NYPD, SWAT personnel will normally be seen in crime suppression roles—specialized and more dangerous than regular patrol, perhaps, but the officers would not be carrying their distinctive armor and weapons.
Since officers have to be on call-out most of the day, they may be assigned to regular patrol duties. To decrease response times to situations that require a SWAT team, it is now a common practice to place SWAT equipment and weaponry in secured lockers in the trunks of specialized police cruisers. Departments that often use this style of organization are county sheriffs, due to the different sizes of counties, and the predominance of back-roads. In places like Los Angeles, where traffic may be heavy, the LAPD use cruisers such as this to respond with their officers so they do not have to return to a police station to armor up. However, heavier duty equipment may be needed depending on the situation that arises.
By illustration, the LAPD's website shows that in 2003, their SWAT units were activated 255 times, for 133 SWAT calls and 122 times to serve high-risk warrants. The NYPD Emergency Service Unit is one of the few police special-response units that operate autonomously 24 hours a day. However, this unit also provides a wide range of services in addition to SWAT functions, including search and rescue, and car accident vehicle extrication, normally handled by fire departments or other agencies.
The need to summon widely dispersed personnel, then equip and brief them, makes for a long lag between the initial emergency and actual SWAT deployment on the ground. The problems of delayed police response at Columbine led to changes in police response, mainly rapid deployment of line officers to deal with an active shooter, rather than setting up a perimeter and waiting for SWAT to arrive.
SWAT teams use equipment designed for a variety of specialist situations including close-quarters combat (CQC) in an urban environment. The particular pieces of equipment vary from unit to unit, but there are some consistent trends in what they wear and use. Much of their equipment is indistinguishable from that supplied to the military, not least because much of it is military surplus.
SWAT personnel wear similar utility uniforms to the tactical uniforms worn by the military. Many police departments have diverged from the original standard black or blue uniforms, and SWAT uniforms now include plain military green and camouflage patterns.
Originally SWAT units were equipped with WWII-surplus steel helmets, or even fiberglass motorcycle helmets. Modern SWAT units commonly use the standard US military helmet. Fire retardant balaclavas are often used to protect the face, as well as to protect the identity of team members. Ballistic vests, sometimes including rigid plate inserts, are standard issue. These vests are labelled with "POLICE", "SHERIFF", "SWAT" or similar, to allow for easy identification.
While a wide variety of weapons are used by SWAT teams, the most common weapons include submachine guns, carbines, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles.
Tactical aids include flash bangs, stingers, and tear gas grenades. Canine units may also be incorporated within SWAT teams, or may be used on an ad hoc basis.
The 9mm Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun used to be the mainstay of most SWAT teams, but this has been phased out by many departments in favor of 5.56 carbines, such as the Colt CAR-15 and the more modern M4. Common shotguns used by SWAT units include the semi-automatic Benelli M1 and, to a lesser extent, the pump-action Remington 870.
Semi-automatic pistols are the most popular sidearms. Examples may include, but are not limited to: M1911 pistol series, SIG Sauer series (especially the P226 and P229), Beretta 92 series, Glock pistols, H&K USP series, and 5.7x28mm FN Five-seveN pistol.
The Colt M16A2 may be used by SWAT marksmen when a longer ranged weapon is needed. Common sniper rifles used are M14 rifle and the Remington 700P. Many different variants of bolt action rifles are used by SWAT, including limited use of .50 caliber sniper rifles for more intense situations.
To breach doors quickly, battering rams, shotguns with breaching rounds, or explosive charges can be used to break the lock or hinges, or even demolish the door frame itself. SWAT teams also use many non-lethal munitions and weapons. These include Tasers, pepper spray canisters, shotguns loaded with bean bag rounds, Pepperball guns, stinger grenades, flash bang grenades, and tear gas. Ballistic shields are used in close quarters situations to provide cover for SWAT team members and reflect gunfire. Pepperball guns are essentially paint ball markers loaded with balls containing Oleoresin Capsicum ("pepper spray").
SWAT units may also employ ARVs (Armored Rescue Vehicle) for insertion, maneuvering, or during tactical operations such as the rescue of civilians, officers, firefighters, and/or military personnel pinned down by gunfire. Helicopters may be used to provide aerial reconnaissance or even insertion via rappelling or fast-roping. To avoid detection by suspects during insertion in urban environments, SWAT units may also use modified buses, vans, trucks, or other seemingly normal vehicles. During the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, LAPD SWAT commandeered an armored cash-delivery truck, which they used to extract wounded civilians and officers from the raging firefight with the heavily-armed bank robbers.
Units such as the Ohio State Highway Patrol's Special Response Team (SRT) used a vehicle called a B.E.A.R., made by Lenco Engineering, which is a very large armored vehicle with a ladder on top to make entry into the second and third floors of buildings. Numerous other agencies such as the LAPD, LASD and NYPD use both the B.E.A.R. and the smaller Lenco BearCat variant. The Anaheim Police Department has a customized B.E.A.R. fitted with a ladder for assaulting multi-story buildings. Many SWAT teams in the states and around the world, including the LAPD, fit their armored and non-armored vehicles with the Patriot3 Liberator and 'MARS' (Mobile Adjustable Ramp System) Elevated Tactics Systems for gaining entry to 2nd- and 3rd-story buildings, airplane assault, sniper positioning, ship access, etc.
The Tulsa Police Department's SOT (Special Operations Team) uses an Alvis Saracen, a British-built armored personnel carrier. The Saracen was modified to accommodate the needs of the SOT. A Night Sun was mounted on top and a ram was mounted to the front. The Saracen has been used from warrant service to emergency response. It has enabled team members to move from one point to another safely.
The police departments of Killeen and Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C. use the Cadillac Gage Ranger, as does the Florida Highway Patrol.
In the late November 2010, Huthaifa al-Batawi, known as al-Qaeda (in Iraq)'s "Emir of Baghdad", was arrested along with 11 others in connection with the 31 October 2010 assault on Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad. Batawi was locked up in a counter-terrorism jail complex in Baghdad's Karrada district. During a failed attempt to escape in May 2011, Batawi and 10 other senior al-Qaeda militants were killed by a SWAT team.